Recently while teaching, I noticed that I had at least five generations all practicing the same classic Bikram Yoga simultaneously! From two members celebrating their 30th and 40th birthdays on the same day, to my young yogi friend about to turn 17 in November, to my tall friend who is almost in his 60s. More amazing, although my attention was drawn to it this one day, this kind of diversity is a routine occurrence in BYSJ classes.
We have beautifully inscribed our favorite Bikram Choudhury quote: “Never too old, never too late, never too sick to start from scratch and do yoga once again,” across our wall above our glass doors, blessing you as you enter the yoga room. Our yoga practice reduces the effects of aging, reduces the wear and tear on the body and the mind while enriching those good feeling chemicals that keep us calm, centered, and connected.
Mentally, the time I’ve spent in the yoga room has shaped my time outside the room. Along with cleaning my body, I’ve cleaned up my consciousness. As I pay attention to the shifts in my body during class, my mind has learned to become aware enough to notice and act. Awareness is a big buzz word lately and is THE attribute that evolves us as human beings. Just think about people in your own life: ones that are more aware and ones that aren’t. Awareness doesn’t make us immune to mistakes, but it does help us become more grounded, stay content, and live more calmly and decisively.
Of course, this mental maturity has it’s roots in the physical body, and especially in how Bikram yoga helps your vagus nerve.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve, known as the “wandering nerve,” starts at the base of the skull and travels throughout the body, connecting to the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. Thought of as our “air-traffic controller,” the vagus nerve helps regulate all our major bodily functions. Breathing, heart rate, digestion, and even how we make meaning of our experiences are all directly related to the vagus nerve.” WOW! Why aren’t we tuned into this nerve more – it’s so important and it’s everywhere! This wandering nerve helps us de-stress and get healthy.
People with healthy vagus nerve functioning (known as “high vagal tone”) are more resilient under stress. You might get stressed, but you can relax more quickly. Someone with high vagal tone, for example, recovers faster from a fight with a spouse. Not surprisingly, this helps you be healthier and more resilient! On the other hand, people with low vagal tone are more sensitive to stress and disease. They get stressed and stay stressed—emotionally and physically. The health consequences are severe: weak digestion, increased heart rate, difficulty managing emotions. All of which lead to conditions like depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and even epilepsy.
The Vagus Nerve & Bikram Yoga
In general, the vagus nerve is pretty hard to exercise directly. However, science has recently shown that yoga is a MAJOR exception- practicing yoga directly and positively improves your vagal tone.
Even simply controlling your inhales and exhales has a positive effect. We do this best in Pranayama deep breathing! Our first ten minutes, in twenty long inhales and twenty long exhales, we stimulate the parasympathetic system. (Read here to learn more about the balance of inhale and exhales on your vagal tone.) This improves your vagus nerve, which improves your digestive, respiratory, immune, and hormone systems! Without having to think about it, every time you practice you strengthen a part of yourself physically that helps you mentally and emotionally. You learn how to keep yourself centered, calm, resilient, and even happy. Get the combo of a more serene body and mind and watch how you show up to life with more presence and vigor regardless of age!
Simple, yes. Easy?
I’m often asked by so many how you how yoga can make us feel so good—stimulating the vagus nerve with our deep breathing is definitely one of the reasons! Sadly, and often in the next breath, I am also given many “confessions” on why you can’t find the time to come to yoga. Feeling tired, achy, in pain, or stressed out? Your body is reminding you to choose carefully how you spend your time. Prioritizing anything with our “too busy” routines is probably harder than doing the yoga class itself. Still, I bet that you will realize that yoga is not discretionary but necessary, and must be given priority in your list of tasks. Then- and only then—does yoga become a foundation that will transform everything. Practice. Frequently. That’s it– all else will follow! As Bikram has screamed over the years, “It’s so easy.”